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Friday, August 7, 2015

Adirondack Great Camps:
Gilded Age Life and Leisure in the Woods

Like most upper-class women of her generation, Ruth Livingston Mills would have abhorred any suggestion of sun exposure on her skin, a sign of outdoor labor and lower social status for centuries.  Wealthy women of her day were mostly covered head-to-toe, often including veils across the face, for the sake of modesty and fashion as well as sun protection.  Parasols were frequently used.  A surviving photograph of Ruth from 1900, shows her in just such attire.  The clothing of Gilded Age women did not lend itself well to outdoor activity or wilderness adventure.  Ruth would not be a likely candidate to spend time roughing it at a wilderness camp in the Adirondacks.  Yet plenty of the Gilded Age elite in her social set owned and visited these large camps during the summer months.  The most popular summer destination was Newport, Rhode Island and Ruth and Ogden were among the many who owned a home there, but many families also owned Adirondack camps to spend some time "roughing it" outdoors.  While Ruth and Ogden did not own a camp, Ogden's sister Elisabeth Mills Reid and her husband, Ambassador Whitelaw Reid, did.  Ruth and Ogden visited their relatives, but as we'll see, "roughing it" at an Adirondack camp was really not that different than spending time at a country house like Staatsburgh.

Ruth protects herself from the sun with both a hat and a parasol with Ogden by her side. 


About the Great Camps

The desire for both a great camp and a country house or seaside cottage stemmed from a longing for a refuge and respite from the city that was typical of many during the Gilded Age.  Yet these types of abodes reveal different things about America during the Gilded Age.  At the turn of the century, high society in America was torn between emulating the European aristocracy and developing something distinctly American to show the rest of the world.  The way that great camp architecture copied nature and revered wilderness was a very American ideal.  Yet rustic architecture still had European influences and early great camps often resembled Swiss chalets with furniture similar to what you might find in an English garden.  Still, America had a fascination and reverence towards wilderness and nature that was quite different from Europe.  Great camps were built to emulate wilderness and blend in with the natural features of the landscape.

The architecture of the Main Lodge at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, NY combines the style of a Swiss chalet with the idea of a rustic log cabin.

Adirondack great camps were built between 1877 and 1949 and were located on a body of water which would provide ample opportunity for fishing, boating, and swimming.  Owners utilized the camps for 6 to 8 weeks each year - sometime between July 4th and Labor Day.  Like Staatsburgh, great camps had all of the latest technology such as hot and cold running water, flush toilets, a central heating system, and gas lights or electricity.  Camps may have been secluded and tucked far away from civilization, but the first camp builders knew that all of these amenities were necessary to attract the wealthiest Americans to the area and when families began to flock to the region and commission camps, they followed suit.

History of the Great Camps

The first great camp was built by a man named William West Durant.  Located on the shores of Raquette Lake in the central Adirondacks (which is owned today by SUNY Cortland), Camp Pine Knot was constructed in 1877.  Prominent early 20th century Adirondack historian Alfred Donaldson is often quoted saying, “Before it was built there was nothing like it; since then, despite infinite variations, there has been nothing essentially different from it.”[1]

Durant was the son of railroad executive Thomas Clark Durant who had begun to develop rail lines in the Adirondacks.  The younger Durant took over his father's enterprises following his death.  W.W. Durant had no formal training as an architect or designer, but he had a clear vision for the region and the type of camps and architecture that were going to attract the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Morgans of the world – and convince them that the area was a destination for entertainment and leisure. With the threat of its loss on the mind of many Americans, a growing fascination with wilderness was one of the main reasons these camps appealed to the Gilded Age elite. Even though the very industry that made them millionaires contributed to the pollution of the city, they wanted to escape its crowds, noise and smells by retreating to the wilderness.

In his design, Durant took the idea of a log cabin, combined it with the idea of a Swiss chalet and in doing so created a brand new style that soon became associated with the Adirondacks and became popular throughout the entire country. He eventually went bankrupt, but Durant built several other camps in the Raquette Lake region including Uncas (which he sold to J.P. Morgan) and Sagamore (which he sold to Alfred Vanderbilt) – both of which continue to stand today as excellent examples of rustic architecture and great camp design.

Camp Wild Air

The Raquette Lake area was where Durant worked, but others soon began to emulate his work and camps sprung up all over the Adirondacks.  The Upper St. Regis Lake near Saranac Lake and Lake Placid was another area where a lot of prominent families owned camps. 

Most consider Camp Wild Air to be the earliest permanent camp on Upper St. Regis Lake and it was believed to have had buildings as early as 1882.  It was in 1886 that the Whitelaw Reid family began leasing and developing the property, which they owned by 1890.  

Whitelaw Reid, circa 1870s

Elisabeth Mills Reid, 1877

Whitelaw Reid was both a newspaperman and an international ambassador. He ran the New York Tribune, was the US minister to France from 1889-1892, and was the US minister to Great Britain from 1905 until his death in 1912. After he died, his widow Elisabeth, daughter of Darius O. Mills and sister to Ogden, continued to utilize the camp. She was active in the American Red Cross as well as supportive of nearby Trudeau Sanatorium.  She continued to entertain many British dignitaries at Wild Air before her own death in 1931. The camp remains in the family today.  This video takes a closer look.

Camp Wild Air was a work in progress for many years, and the camp that remains today includes buildings from several construction seasons in the camp’s history. The Reid’s niece was said to have designed the first cabin in the 1880s, but the camp soon expanded and several architects played a role. William Mead of McKim, Mead & White designed the main lodge and the Reid’s cabin after a fire destroyed several buildings. It is the only known example of rustic design by the firm.

Camp Wild Air, c.1903 - Source: Library of Congress: LC-D4-16803 

The camp has the spirit of a small tent compound due to the fact that most of the buildings are modest single story cabins situated around the shoreline. The main distinguishing feature of the camp, and something that was later emulated by other nearby camps was the polygonal pavilion – log veneered single room structures extending over the lake.

The Billiard Room at Camp Wild Air - one of the camp's polygonal pavilions.

Like many other Adirondack camps, Camp Wild Air was really the domain of its caretaker. The Reid family would have visited perhaps six to eight weeks each year, but the caretaker lived there the entire year. Fred Barnes, the caretaker at Camp Wild Air for nearly fifty years, worked as a guide and a carpenter at the camp and was also responsible for the construction of many of the camp’s buildings.

Many guests came to Wild Air to play tennis or cards with the Reids and sailboat races on the lake were held every summer. The Reids entertained countless guests at their camp including Lord and Lady Minto from Canada in 1903. As the Governor General of Canada, Lord Minto had a relationship with Mr. Reid (who was not yet, but was about to be appointed the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom) Darius Ogden Mills was a frequent visitor and even celebrated his 84th birthday at the camp. He occupied the “Bishop’s Palace” cabin, which was named for the many Episcopalian clerics who used to stay there. A letter he wrote to Whitelaw Reid even mentions his pleasure that his grandchildren Ogden and Gladys were also able to attend. The New York Times reported that Ruth and Ogden were guests at Camp Wild Air for a spell in 1903.

The 'Bishop's Palace' cabin where D.O. Mills stayed during his visits

Upper St. Regis Camps

Camp Wild Air may have been the earliest permanent camp on Upper Saint Regis Lake, but soon many other wealthy and well known families began to build camps and at one point nearly 20 camps dotted the shores of the Upper St. Regis. Two to three years after the Reids started coming to the St. Regis, it began to flourish during the summer season. Soon Frederick Vanderbilt, Cyrus McCormick, John D. Rockefeller, and others began to entertain on a grand scale. The camp was more than just a family retreat, it was meant to entertain. Customs were transported from the city and the formality of a meal here at Staatsburgh would be found many miles into the wilderness. Soon every Labor Day weekend the Reids hosted a “fancy dress dance.”

Frederick Vanderbilt, friend and neighbor of Ruth and Odgen Mills at Staatsburgh, also had a camp on Upper St. Regis Lake. He named his camp Pine Tree Point, and one of the things that makes this camp unique was Vanderbilt's use of Japanese style buildings. As evidenced by the extensive Asiatic art collection at Staatsburgh, an interest in Asia and art from Asia was common in the Gilded Age. Vanderbilt hired artisans from the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo to create Japanese style buildings including a pagoda and a tea house. It was said that Vanderbilt often required his servants to wear Japanese clothes…an experience they reportedly did not enjoy.

The Tea Room or Pagoda at Pine Tree Point

Topridge was one of the most famous and largest Adirondack camps – it had 68 buildings and a staff of 85 when fully occupied. It's owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune, included buildings with even more of an international flare than Pine Tree Point.  Her most renowned addition to the camp was a Russian dacha which she had built since her third husband was the ambassador to the Soviet Union. She had a huge screen to project movies and was said to give hats to all of her female guests so that the bats would not ruin their fancy hairdos. The exuberance and verve of Mrs. Post was telling in her design for the camp and her desire to entertain – despite a rustic exterior, the camp was very lavishly appointed.

The Boathouse at Camp Topridge on Upper St. Regis Lake

Entertainment and Leisure in the Wilderness

Visiting an Adirondack camp became just another part of the social circuit for the Gilded Age aristocracy. The community created in the Adirondacks had similar customs to Newport or even the Hudson Valley, but the Adirondack wilderness setting was vastly different from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean or Hudson River.  While Upper St. Regis Lake was host to a large number of camps which created a unique, insular community, camps in other parts of the Adirondacks were not so easily accessible.  Travel from one camp to another was an ordeal and sometimes involved riding a train, stagecoach, and ferry.  Many early roads were corduroy roads (see image), which resulted in a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride.  The feeling of being lost in the wilderness was just part of the great camp experience. Oftentimes, automobiles were not allowed in camp and even though the camp had all of the modern conveniences, electrical wires were buried, and service buildings were covered with bark to blend in with the environment.

Even though the setting of these camps was remote and camps might have been located miles from any other building, the customs of high class dining were followed in the wilderness.  The fine china might have a pine tree pattern, but hostesses served meals cooked by the finest French chefs with printed menus also in French.

Life at great camps was full of outdoor activity. The gentlemen would go hunting and fishing and often take part in rowing or yachting races. Evening campfires and songs would alight the shores of the lakes. Adirondack guides would take guests hunting or fishing and tell them stories about life in the Adirondacks and the game they hunted. The ladies would even take short hikes with a picnic basket to eat lunch at a lean-to or open pavilion situated on a trail or near the lake.

The open air bowling alley at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, NY

Oftentimes, camp owners would return to the camp for a weekend getaway during winter and spend time tobogganing or sleigh riding. With the lakes frozen over there was an opportunity for skating or snow shoeing or skiing.  Bowling, tennis, and croquet were common sports enjoyed at great camps.  Certainly, what was the good of a wilderness retreat without a bowling alley!  Families such as the Reids and the Millses would enjoy great camp activities during the summer months, but they wouldn't totally abandon their sensibilities of class and respectful behaviors.  A vacation into the woods may have appeared rustic compared to Staatsburgh or the homes in Newport, but one could never totally escape society and its expectations.

Open camps(also known as a lean to) were often among the multiple buildings comprising a great camp.   Source: Library of Congress: LC-D4-16834

If you would like to visit or stay at an Adirondack Great Camp this summer, check out the the following places:

[1] Alfred L. Donaldson, A History of the Adirondacks (New York: The Century Co., 1921), 2:92.

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